History of Europe

Long and bitter:the chair workers' strike in Lauterberg

Last updated:2022-07-25

Exploitation and wage cuts were the order of the day in many places at the end of the 19th century. On March 2, 1896, the Lauterberg chair workers went on strike. A brutal labor dispute begins - and at 32 weeks it was the longest at the time.

by Irene Altenmüller

Lauterberg im Harz, late 19th century:The mining industry, from which the small town lived for centuries, is in decline. Instead, furniture production has established itself. Nine chair factories alone are based in the region, employing up to 1,000 workers. There are also numerous women, old people and children who work at home as chair weavers.

Workers have few rights

Lauterberg on a postcard from 1907. Until 1915, the town was an important center for timber production.

The working conditions in the factories are oppressive. They toil twelve hours a day, six days a week. There is no vacation. The employees have to bring their own tools and petroleum for the light at the workplace, and they have to buy some of the working materials from the factory owners - often at prices above the usual prices. In this way, part of the wages goes straight back to the entrepreneur.

Short-time work and low wages determine everyday life

In order to be able to pay for the materials, many workers have to go into debt and fall into a spiral of dependency. If sales of the chairs fluctuate, the employers cut the wages of the workers. "Short-time work and wage cuts determine the working atmosphere," writes the author and politician Klaus Wettig, who has dealt intensively with the topic. Trade unions were only recently re-registered after the end of the Socialist Law in 1890 and trade unionists were subjected to massive pressure:"Once membership became known, termination soon followed", says Wettig.

Further wage cuts escalate the situation

In March 1896, the chair manufacturer Haltehoff wanted to reduce wages again. But this time the workers are fighting back. "The chair makers didn't want to or couldn't make the chairs for the price," writes Heinrich Hillegeist, who also owned a chair factory in Lauterberg in 1896, in his memoirs. On March 2, the workers go on strike. They receive support from the Woodworkers' Association, a trade union founded in 1893.

Fritz Erfurth leads the strike

The leader of the strikers is Fritz Erfurth. He himself is not a woodworker, but a tobacconist and has only recently settled in Lauterberg. He had been sent to the region by the Woodworkers' Union to recruit members - a common practice of unions at the time to increase their influence. According to Hillegeist's reminiscences, Erfurth managed to recruit around 700 members for the union in a short space of time. "The case ofHaltenhoff &Zeideler brought him brilliant success," he writes.

Manufacturers join forces

In 1896, Heinrich Hillegeist owned one of the Lauterberg chair factories. In his memoirs he describes the events.

Erfurth was soon regarded by entrepreneurs as a socialist devil. They join together to form a cartel and contractually agree that "if a strike should break out in one company, all other companies are obliged to lock out all their employees or pay a fine of 3,000 marks to the rest (manufacturers, editor's note). should".

Violent clashes with scabs

Both sides are waging the strike with all their might. When the entrepreneurs hire scabs from abroad, fights ensue, sometimes even shots are fired. Several people are injured in stabbings, a scab bar burns down.

Workers are becoming politicized

But the lockouts also have positive effects for the workers:For the first time in their lives, they have free time. Many use this to politicize themselves:"The workers have leisure to think about socio-political things and a large weekly meeting supports the educational efforts in an excellent way", reports the trade union newspaper "Der Holzarbeiter" on June 21, 1896.

Many women take part in the meetings, often as speakers. They are not allowed to become members of a party or a trade union - these only open up to women in 1908.

SPD press calls for donations throughout the Reich

The strike empties the coffers of the woodworkers' union - the young union has only limited resources and has underestimated the perseverance of the entrepreneurs. The union has to collect an additional contribution from all members to finance the strike. In addition, the SPD is calling for financial support for the Lauterberg labor dispute in its press organs throughout the Reich.

13. October 1896:Strike ends disastrously for the workers

Lauterberger chair workers at the Hillegeist factory in a photo from 1906. The men are standing in front of theater chairs that are exported to Holland.

After months of industrial action, the woodworkers' association is threatened with financial ruin. He secretly sends negotiators to Lauterberg to negotiate with the manufacturers. "They asked us to rehire the people on the terms we would set," Hillegeist writes in his memoirs. The strike ends in disaster for the workers. The strikers are fired and re-hired. Before doing so, they have to agree to withdraw from the union; there are no wage increases. At least the entrepreneurs promise not to hinder the work of the woodworkers' association in the future.

Strike leader has to leave Lauterberg

The strike leader Fritz Erfurth has to leave the Harz Mountains with his family within 14 days under pressure from the entrepreneurs. After 32 weeks, on October 13, 1896, the strike, which has gone down in history as the longest and most dramatic, is officially ended.

Sobering consequences of the strike

The experience in Lauterberg led the trade unions to change their statutes. In the future, local strikes may only be planned and started with the approval of the headquarters. The working conditions of the chair workers hardly changed in the years that followed, and the wage cuts by the manufacturers continued. It was not until the new century that things began to move again. In 1907, the woodworkers' association - which has meanwhile grown to become the third-largest trade union in the German Reich - successfully negotiates collective agreements in which wage increases and reductions in working hours are stipulated.

03/03/2021 11:08 am

Editor's note:In a previous version of the article, we incorrectly dated the strike to 1986 and put the strike duration at 23 weeks. In fact, the chair workers' strike ended after around 32 weeks on October 13, 1896. We apologize for the transposed digits.